The word archaeology means - the study of ancient things’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology by T. Darvill, 2002).
Archaeology is the study of the people of the past: how they lived, where they lived, what they ate, and what their environment was like. Archaeologists use tools, houses, plant and animal remains, pollen, shells, and other evidence that they dig up in excavations to understand what the people of the deeper past were like and how they lived.
Archaeology is different from history in that history uses documents, letters and drawings to understand how people lived in the more recent past. Sometimes archaeologists use written historical records together with the artefacts that they have dug up to create a picture or story of what the past was like. This is called historical archaeology.
When did archaeology become a science?
(From An Introduction to Archaeology by Lesley and Roy Adkins, 1998)
In the mid-16th century, people in Britain working for King Henry VIII started making lists of old buildings and the history of the places that they visited. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, people started to collect old things, taking them home and displaying them in their homes. Some people were curious about these objects and started to study where they came from and what they meant, and so they started to dig into burial mounds to look for treasures’.
By the late 19th century, many of these treasure hunters’ were digging all over Britain and Europe , for example Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist who excavated at Troy. These treasure hunters’ were mostly men who were quite rich and had the money to pursue their hobby of collecting antiquities.
At the end of the 1900’s, General Pitt-Rivers (who now has a museum named after him in Oxford, United Kingdom), was the first person properly to excavate archaeological sites. He laid out grid patterns and carefully mapped and collected all the artefacts that he found. He realised that once you have dug something up, you can never get back the information that gets lost as you dig through the site.
General Pitt-Rivers also wrote about the things that he found, so that people outside of his friends and family would know what he had discovered about the past. Slowly but surely, other people started to follow his example and record what they had found. After the First World War, all sorts of inventions helped people to learn about the past, and finally, people (both men and women) started to pursue archaeology as a job, rather than as a hobby. Nowadays, most archaeologists work in museums and universities across the world.
Why do people study archaeology?
People study archaeology to learn about the past and how people used to live long ago. This helps us understand how the world came to be the way it is today, and also helps us understand other people and their different cultures.
The past is the key to the present and the future. Everybody wants to know where they come from, they want to know about their heritage and the heritage of other people.
How do archaeological sites become buried?
Archaeological sites are sometimes not buried, we can see them on the landscape, for example: Stonehenge in England, the pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece and the city of Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe. Other sites were buried either by sand being blown over them for thousands of years, buried deliberately by people, or, like Pompeii, were buried by ash from a volcano.
How are archaeological sites found?
The first way that sites are found is by people going out and looking for them. For example, archaeologists will decide to look for Bushman rock art in the Drakensberg, and they will hike up and down until they find a rock shelter with art in it. They then record where the site is by taking a GPS (global positioning system) reading. Using these co-ordinates, the site can be plotted on a map.
The second way archaeological sites are found is by accident. They are discovered by people walking on their farms, digging to make a highway, or clearing away vegetation and soil to build an office block.
When people find archaeological sites, they must always tell an archaeologist about it. They are not allowed to dig at the site themselves or take away artefacts, only an archaeologist with a permit from the Government is allowed to do that.
“Contributed by Bronwen van Doornum, Natal Museum”